I first heard of Asad Shah’s murder through a WhatsApp group. Its members are mainly prominent, respected Sunni Muslims. When it was reported that the Glaswegian shop owner – whose final message on Facebook was to wish Christians a happy Easter – had been killed, the group expressed its outrage. ‘This is what happens when the media keeps pushing their blatant Islamophobia,’ said one member, who later added: ‘This is why it’s important we stick together and we’re united as one Ummah.’
As details of Shah’s murder were revealed, the rhetoric of a united Muslim community slowly faded. Fewer messages calling for public demonstrations were sent, and the tone became uncharacteristically cautious. On the day of Shah’s funeral, one member simply posted: ‘We should condemn all violence against innocent people, Muslim and non-Muslim.’
Part of the hesitance to speak openly about Shah’s murder was because the man accused of his murder was another Muslim. It made it difficult to argue the attack was ‘Islamophobic’. But there was another elephant in the room too. Shah was revealed to be an Ahmadiyya Muslim, a minority Islamic sect originating from 19th century India. The Ahmadis are one of the smallest minority Muslim groups in Britain, but also one of the most active. They sum up their message of Islam as ‘Love for all, Hatred for None’.
You might have seen them at train stations selling Remembrance Day poppies, congratulating the Queen on her diamond jubilee, and, during the last general election, holding voter registration drives. Ahmadiyya Muslims also formally reject the concept of violent Jihad. Their actions have earned them praise from politicians and the media, who see the group as the ideal example of integrated British Muslims.
However, this recognition has sparked anger from other groups, who do not consider them to be ‘authentic’ Muslims. Most members of the Whatsapp group hold this opinion. This view isn’t just limited to theologians either. Yesterday, the Sunday Times revealed that Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, had also suggested on Facebook that he didn’t ‘regard Ahmadis as Muslim’. Maher has since deleted his comment and apologised.
The Ahmadiyya’s theological beliefs – namely that another prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was sent to ‘revive the message of Islam’ – has meant they have often faced persecution. In Britain, Ahmadis are often absent from mainstream Muslim events. In Islamic countries, they are unable to participate in the political process, and for decades, they have not been allowed to perform the Hajj in Mecca.
The new reality in Britain is that sectarian abuse and violence is on the rise within its Muslim communities. This is nothing new in places like Pakistan, where minority sects including Shias and Ahmadis are routinely persecuted and considered heretics. Though there are no official documents looking at inter-faith violence in Britain, the hate monitoring group Tell MAMA say that the number of abuse cases against minority sects, particularly the Ahmadis, has significantly increased over the past five years.
‘Verbal and physical abuse is something we’ve come to accept,’ says Ali, a 25 year-old Ahmadi social worker who recalls receiving death threats and having bricks thrown through his windows while growing up in north London. ‘It’s also common to hear it in the mosques too. I remember sitting in a Friday sermon once and having to hear about how I was a deviant, and that no other Muslims should be associating with me.’ Other Ahmadis I spoke to recalled similar stories, saying that until recently, the abuse towards them had largely gone undocumented.
We’ve reached this situation because sectarian hate preachers have been allowed to flourish in the UK. In 2010, it was reported that extremist preachers had been appearing on Urdu-speaking satellite channels broadcast in the UK referring to the Ahmadiyya as Wajib-ul Qatal, an Arabic term meaning ‘liable for death’. In south London, anti-Ahmadi activists had also been urging Muslims not to trade with Ahmadi business owners.
One prominent anti-Ahmadiyya group is Khatme Nubuwwat, whose UK academy is in Forest Gate in east London. Each year, this global organisation, which claims to be an affiliate of the Muslim Council of Britain, holds its conference in its London headquarters. In the past, prominent lecturers have warned that Ahmadis lack true Islamic values. More recently, the BBC revealed that literature which called for capital punishment for the Ahmadis had been discovered in a London mosque with links to the group.
According to a prominent Ahmadi community leader I spoke to, there is nothing extraordinary about this: ‘If you go back just a few years ago, you’d see similar flyers being handed out openly on the street. There’s always been hateful language, but now it seems there’s more willingness to act on it. A minority will be violent in order to prove they’re true Muslims.’
After decades of agitating against British Ahmadis, organisations like Khatme Nubuwwat are receiving media scrutiny for the first time. There is some hope that politicians and the authorities may now rethink how they address this problem. But as many Ahmadi Muslims have known for a while, sectarian violence is alive on the streets of Britain.
Hussein Kesvani is a journalist and researcher, focusing on religious affairs and counter-extremism.